Life

There's gold in the old

By Zhang Kun (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-04-28 07:57
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 There's gold in the old

Cissy Pao says refurbishing an old house is like painting a new artwork on an empty canvas. Provided to China Daily

"Second generation rich" Cissy Pao has combined her aptitude for art with her business acumen to refurbish old Shanghai houses. Zhang Kun reports

When Cissy Pao used to walk out of her China Town studio in New York, the parking lot attendant took her to be one of the sewing women from the nearby clothing factory.

She is actually from one of the richest families in Asia, and third daughter of Pao Yue-kong, founder of Hong Kong's Worldwide Shipping Group, once the world's largest shipping company.

"I wanted to be adventurous and self-reliant, and didn't want to take advantage of family relations," she told China Daily late week, while in Shanghai for the opening of the abstract art exhibition by Li Lei, director of Shanghai Art Museum.

Once an aspiring artist with a degree in art history, Pao has combined her artistic aptitude with business, and revamped more than 10 historic garden villas in Shanghai, turning them into modern residential or commercial entities.

The Leo Gallery, where the exhibition was held, is located on one of her properties. Ferguson Lane was built in the 1930s. Several years ago, Pao passed by the area, fell in love with an old house along the lane, and decided to buy the place. Now it has become an uptown leisure compound in the heart of the former French Concession.

"In the 1970 and 80s, I bought two lofts and refurbished them. After peeling off one layer after another of paint, I found beautiful oak wood in the old framework - you can't help but be excited by the transformation of an old place," she recalls of her first successful experience.

Two or three years later Pao sold the lofts for almost triple the price she paid for them.

"More people from Hong Kong have realized the value of antique buildings in Shanghai in recent years, but now it's difficult to find purchasable houses. Many houses have complicated ownership, and some people are reluctant to give up their old residence," she says.

"We should invite people to come back and visit the place they sold to us, so that they can see the transformation."

Refurbishing an antique house is like painting a new artwork on an empty canvas, she says.

"At first you don't know what to expect, then every now and then you come back and see some improvements at the building site. An old house is like a diamond needing to be polished, or mud to be molded into a sculpture."

Though she once dreamed of being a professional artist, she has found her position between art and business.

"You can think about the market, but more importantly you need to know about yourself, and know what's best for you," she says about some artists who lost themselves in the market boom for contemporary Chinese art.

Back in 1980, when Pao had her first exhibition in New York, she called her father with pride to say that she had sold her first piece.

"My father laughed when he learned that I made about $8,000 from it - he must have thought I was a silly girl to go through so much trouble just for that little amount of money."

Pao Yue-Kong had four daughters and no son. The four girls were named in alphabetic order: Anna, Bessie, Cissy and Doreen. Anna's husband inherited the shipping business. All four daughters are actively involved in arts and charity in Hong Kong. Cissy Pao has worked as the chairwoman of the Hong Kong Arts Center for almost seven years, holding fund-raising campaigns and making sure the money is used properly.

As one of the "second-generation rich", Pao believes it's important to know the value of things. "It's okay to pay twice what something's worth, but it would be stupid to pay 100 times more," she says.

"It's a good thing to know how to spend your money. With more money one can have a broader vision and create bigger achievements. My parents were thrifty - my father wore the same wristwatch for 30 years, and my mother used to mend the stockings we threw away and wear them."

A good calligrapher, Pao Yue-Kong used to give his hand-written couplets to his daughters, which called on them to keep exercising for good health, and work hard and be prudent in their careers. Pao still has the couplet hung in her office.

(China Daily 04/28/2010 page18)